“New Criticism locates meaning in the internal qualities of literary works, specifically the unity of their multiple verbal structures. as much as it values unity and convergence, New Criticism eschews authorial intent and historical context as bases for interpretation, although it allows that they might supplement understanding.” ~Joshua Kupetz, “The Straight Line Will Take You Only to Death” – an intro to On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac
In his intro to the original On the Road scroll, Kupetz, editor of the scroll and an English professor, says he has been confronted by the idea that Kerouac “mattered first as a personality.” He proceeds to defend the scroll as an example that Kerouac knew what he was doing structurally, verbally, and creatively when he wrote the scroll – and is therefore to be acknowledged first as a strong writer. Which I totally agree with.
The problem is, Kerouac creates himself as a character. He inserts his personality into the story – more directly than other writers. So, try as a critic might to separate the two, the structure of the story is embedded with the biographical information that a critic would work so hard to separate out.
The 1957 version – the version published originally – is easier to separate from Kerouac-the-Author because he edited the thing. (Which, I might add, calls into question the idea that the fast, unedited way is the Beat Way to Write, as does the fact that Kerouac doesn’t seem to have any more scrolls in his closet….) There are chapters and paragraph breaks. And, most tellingly, the characters have character names.
The scroll, on the other hand, is an outright invitation to critics and readers to put Kerouac-the-Author in with Kerouac-the-Character – a charactouac or a kerouacter, whichever you prefer. The main character is not "Sal Paradise" in the scroll. It’s Jack. No "Dean Moriarty" here – only the real-life Neal Cassady. The scroll reads more like today’s literary memoirs, more like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.
So that’s a problem. If the scroll is presented as the definitive edition, how are we supposed to pull Kerouac out of it without unraveling the whole thing? It’d be like trying to pull Maya Angelou out of her oeuvre. Good luck with that!
Honestly, I don’t think that we can if the scroll is considered definitive. But we can separate the two using the 1957 edition – and I have to say that, regardless of how Kerouac may have felt about editing it…he did edit it. Ultimately, he compromised. It’s really okay that he did that. He chose that the public should have the book in some form. And it was a sensation. It allowed him the freedom to create other books.
Speaking purely as a writer, I would hope to heaven that my first drafts are not considered my definitive editions. I personally think that the perfect edition is really somewhere in the middle, somewhere between the scroll and the published book.
As it is, I think that it's easy to respect both for what they are. The 1957 version for it's classic structures - however far away from Kerouac's 'vision' (because we're not supposed to consider his intent, right? That can only happen with the 1957 version). The scroll, however, allows us to see Kerouac and accept or reject him as a character within his own context. There aren't many pieces out there that do that....